Citation for ʿUlamāʿ

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Zaman, Iftikhar and Shahrough Akhavi. "ʿUlamāʿ." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 22, 2022. <>.


Zaman, Iftikhar and Shahrough Akhavi. "ʿUlamāʿ." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 22, 2022).


[this entry contains two subentries:

Sunnī ʿulamāʿ

The Arabic word ʿulamāʿ is the plural of ʿālim, literally “man of knowledge.” The opposite of ʿilm (knowledge) is jahl (ignorance). In the Qurʿān both terms are frequently used in connection with knowledge of that which was revealed to the Prophet, or knowledge of God. Belief in God is ʿilm, so that the ʿālim is the believer; disbelief is jahl, so that the truly ignorant person is the one who does not believe in God. By implication, one is an ʿālim on account of particular religious knowledge (the Qurʿān, the ḥadīth, and fiqh or religious law); and it has always been expected that the ʿālim embody the qualities expected of one who believes in God and practices Islam.

This textual background has always connoted specifically religious knowledge, either in the sense of gnosis or in the sense of knowledge of exoteric religious law. In the earliest periods of Islamic history, ʿulamāʿ were those who had knowledge of specifically religious sciences. Auxiliary sciences, such as knowledge of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, were seen as important, but only as an aid to understanding the Qurʿān. The translation of works of Greek scholarship during Maʿmūn al-Rashīd's reign (813–833 CE) presented a serious challenge to this unified conception of knowledge. However, despite heated initial debate about the utility of this knowledge, the ʿulamāʿ became its guardians.

Thus, on the eve of the nineteenth century—the period of colonial domination of much of the Islamic world—a single set of institutions provided the fundamentals of education in Islamic societies. One could assume a basic course of study for the educated would include the Qurʿān, Qurʿānic exegesis (tafsīr), ḥadīth, religious law, and disciplines like medicine, astronomy, geometry, natural philosophy, rhetoric, and logic. Beyond this, the specialist in Islamic jurisprudence, the teacher of Qurʿānic exegesis, the physician, the astronomer, or the geometrician would each have some additional specialist knowledge. The title ʿālim, however, would be applied to one who had specialized in the religious sciences.

Colonial domination constructed a parallel meaning for education. Knowledge of the colonizer's language became a prerequisite for one sense in which the word “educated” could be used. This split in meaning is reflected in modern Arabic, where the word “scientist” is also translated as ʿālim. Ironically, it now becomes possible for the word ʿālim to be applied to someone who does not even know of the religion of Islam, or have a knowledge of the religious disciplines.

The colonial reorganization of society introduced a similar discontinuity in the function of the ʿulamāʿ in Muslim communities. For example, Western medicine, legal institutions, and administrative structures became an alternative to indigenous systems of medical treatment, legal redress, and governance. A class of professional physicians, lawyers, and administrators emerged who had no effective allegiance or connection to the classical system of education and its personnel. From the perspective of the colonized, the legal system was as much a “religious” institution as was a school for teaching Qurʿānic exegesis. For the colonizing powers, however, the replacement of indigenous institutions had to stop when it came to what was peculiarly “religious” in their own eyes. Thus during colonial rule the domain of operation of the ʿulamāʿ became confined to the mosque and the madrasah.

The Mosque.

Although there is no custom or ritual within Islamic practice for which one needs any particular set of credentials, it is a general rule that the most knowledgeable among a group of people should lead the prayers. Thus a typical function an ʿālim would perform is that of imām of a mosque. As imām he leads daily prayers, delivers the Friday sermon, and teaches the children in the neighborhood the basics of Islamic law along with Qurʿānic recitation and sometimes writing and calligraphy. He may also be called upon on occasions of birth, death, and marriage, for prayers or for help in the performance of the rituals involved.

The more rural the setting, the more likely it is that these functions would be seen rigidly as the functions of the imām of the mosque; in more urban areas or where there is more awareness of Islamic law, it is not uncommon for any individual familiar with a ritual to perform it. Similarly, the more rural the setting, the more likely it is that the imām is not an ʿālim in the sense of having completed the usual course of study. Nevertheless, he would be perceived as the only person in the area sufficiently familiar with the rituals and with sufficient authority in the eyes of the community to perform these rituals.

The Madrasah.

The two common modes of study in the precolonial period were tutelage with individual scholars, or attendance at a madrasah such as the Mustanṣirīyah or the Niẓāmīyah (both in Baghdad), or al-Azhar in Cairo. The funding of such institutions and their degree of dependence on the state (or on other donors) has varied over time and place. A typical arrangement would involve a grant of land or other income-yielding property to the madrasah in perpetuity, an endowment or waqf. Such an arrangement would yield maximum freedom, though on the other end of the scale a state or nobleman would assume direct responsibility of meeting the expenses of a madrasah.

In modern times too the patronage of madrasahs has taken a variety of courses. The colonizers had been diffident in interfering with what they saw as local religious institutions; the new rulers were Muslim and had no such qualms. Thus in some Muslim countries many madrasahs ended up being completely state-funded; some even underwent radical curricular changes under government intervention. In other areas, during the colonial period some madrasahs found alternative funding in the form of small private donations from the public at large. Such madrasahs clung strongly to the freedom they had been able to achieve even when the colonial rulers left and were replaced with Muslim leaders.

As with funding, the nature of the curriculum varies from region to region. In some places the classical curriculum has been modified to the degree that it is almost indistinguishable from the curriculum of a modern Western university. At the other end of the spectrum are the madrasahs that have tried to maintain the classical curriculum as much as possible. As indigenous social institutions have been replaced by imported ones, the curricula of these madrasahs have become more and more focused on particularly religious sciences. Medicine, astronomy, and geometry are studied only superficially, if at all. Logic and natural philosophy have fared only a little better. The literary sciences receive better coverage because they are aids to understanding and interpreting the Qurʿān and the ḥadīth. The focus of study has become the Qurʿān, the ḥadīth, Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), and other disciplines necessary for their understanding.

Along with teaching, larger madrasahs also typically provide fatwās—responses to individuals about religious obligations in specific situations of daily life. Fatwā is applied law: everyone can read the rules, but only a muftī is qualified to examine a situation and identify which rules apply and how much weight potentially conflicting rules should be accorded. Again, the ability to offer a fatwā is a matter of training and not a result of any esoteric knowledge. Thus it is quite acceptable to obtain a fatwā from one muftī and forward it to a second muftī for his comments.

The redefinition of “education” discussed above has provided Islamic societies a course of intellectual discipline very different from that of the traditional ʿulamāʿ. In addition, because of the political ascendancy of those who subscribe to this new style of intellectual discipline, it has not been possible for the ʿulamāʿ simply to ignore it. In the past few decades educational institutions have developed in Muslim countries that base themselves quite consciously on Western models but also teach and study the specifically religious sciences. These are precisely the domains the colonizers had been hesitant to approach. Thus a group of people has emerged who have not gone through the educational institutions and disciplines of the classical ʿulamāʿ, but who also lay claim to knowledge of the Qurʿān, ḥadīth, and Islamic law. Much of the sometimes bewildering array of opinions on Islam and on what is Islamic results from the attempts of this new group of so-called ʿulamāʿ to wrest interpretative authority from the traditional ʿulamāʿ.

Despite the changed circumstances and the variety of approaches to knowledge in Muslim communities, the authority of the traditional ʿulamāʿ remains quite strong. This is particularly true in issues relating to the textual sources of Islam, in which the ʿulamāʿ are recognized as the final arbiters. And since there are many places in the Islamic world where the control of the government has never really been complete, the local ʿālim continues to be sought out as judge, arbiter, and administrator.



  • Ahmed, al-Haj Moinuddin. Ulama: The Boon and Bane of Islamic Society. New Delhi, 1990. Criticism of the failures of the ʿulamāʿ to lead Muslim societies into modernization.
  • Antoun, Richard T.Muslim Preacher in the Modern World: A Jordanian Case Study in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, 1989. Insightful study of the political roles of the ʿulamāʿ in Jordan, with particular reference to mosque sermons.
  • Baer, Gabriel, ed.“The ʿUlamaʿ in Modern History.” Special issue of Asian and African Studies7 (1971). Deals with Sunnī authorities in the Ottoman Empire, Syria, Sudan, Palestine, India, Egypt, and the Maghrib.
  • Hassan, Mohammad Kamal. Muslim Intellectual Responses to “New Order” Modernization in Indonesia. Kuala Lumpur, 1982. Focuses on the attitudes of the Indonesian ʿulamāʿ to political developments.
  • Hefner, Robert W., and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, eds.Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education. Princeton, 2007.
  • Keddie, Nikki R., ed.Scholars, Saints, and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions since 1500. Berkeley, 1972. A classic work: Part 1 addresses various roles of the ʿulamāʿ from the Ottoman period to mid-twentieth-century Egypt and Pakistan.
  • Kepel, Gilles, and Tann Richard, eds.Intellectuels et militants de l’Islam contemporain. Paris, 1990. Part 1 is a useful discussion of the ʿulamāʿ in Morocco and Oman.
  • Metcalf, Barbara D.Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband 1860–1900. New ed.New York, 2002.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago, 1982. Modernist Muslim views of how Islamic traditions, and their guardians, may evolve over time.
  • Reese, Scott S.The Transmission of Learning in Islamic Africa. Leiden, 2004.
  • Robinson, Francis. The Ulama of Farangi Mahall and Islamic Culture in South Asia. London, 2001.
  • Roy, Olivier. “Intellectuels et ulema dans la resistance afghane.” Issue on “L’Islamisme en effervescence.” Peuples Meditérranéens21 (October–December 1982): 129–151.
  • Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change. Princeton, 2002.

The role of the ʿulamāʿ must be seen in the context of a struggle in Muslim countries over the definition of knowledge and what it means to be educated. The works in Western languages listed below do not acknowledge that the ʿulamāʿ, as a phenomenon of Muslim societies, represent a complete indigenous vision of knowledge and what it means to be educated; this is an alternative to the vision of knowledge and education of the Western colonizer. As such, these studies are part of the struggle over the definition of knowledge and education, on the side of the colonizers. One would want to round out the picture by presenting some of the polemical works written by ʿulamāʿ in this struggle. Unfortunately the ʿulamāʿ write either in Arabic or their indigenous languages. The following Urdu work is an example of the perspective of the ʿulamāʿ on this redefinition: Manāẓir Aḥsan Gīlānī, k va Hind Me Musalmāno kā niẓ ām-e taʿlīm va tarbiyat (Lahore, n.d.), two vols. in one.

Iftikhar Zaman

Shīʿī ʿUlamāʿ

This article focuses on the ʿulamāʿ of Twelver, or Ithnā ʿAsharī, Shiism. Although the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ (sing. ʿālim, professional religious scholars) have performed many of the same functions undertaken by their Sunnī counterparts, their political impact on society in the modern period has been more direct and incisive for the outcome of events. Generally speaking, the Muslim ʿulamāʿ emerged gradually over the first two centuries, beginning as a small group involved in the elaboration of fiqh (jurisprudence), but especially ḥadīth (pl. aḥadīth, narrative accounts of the sayings and actions of the Prophet; for the Shīʿah, also the sayings and actions of the Imams). The first generation of scholars following the era of the Companions of the Prophet were called tābiʿūn (those who follow). In the early period, these scholars were accustomed to traveling to acquire knowledge related to these two subjects, a practice that took some of them far afield from their areas of provenance. Evidence exists that the words ʿālim/ʿulamāʿ were initially used to refer to ḥadīth specialists, whereas the expression faqīh was reserved for those elaborating the law. But eventually—though it would be hard to date this specifically—the word ʿulamāʿ came to signify the religious scholars more generally speaking, whose specializations covered a broad range of subjects, including theology, jurisprudence, aḥadīth, biography, history, ethics, not to mention Arabic grammar, syntax, and the like.

Dating the rise of the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ as a corporate stratum in Weber's sense is not easy to do. We know that Shiism, or the veneration of ʿAlī ibn Abī ṭālib (d. 661) and his line through his wife, Fāṭimah—a daughter of the Prophet—arose in Kufa, Iraq. It spread to Iran in the lifetime or shortly thereafter of ʿAlī's son by another wife, Muḥammad ibn al-ḥanafīyah (d. 700). Manifested in the Kaysanīyah and Hashimīyah movements, early Shiism in Iraq and Iran was radically sectarian. When Shīʿī movements ascended under the banner of Abū Muslim (d. 753), a leader of the ʿAbbāsid rebellion against the Umayyads, it appeared that Shiism would triumph throughout the Islamic territories. However, the ʿAbbāsid rulers embraced Sunnism, thus limiting Shiism to a heterodox tendency.

The founder of Shīʿī law was the fifth imam, Muḥammad al-Bāqir (d. 733), a grandson of Imam ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī (d. 680), to whom Kufans had turned increasingly for rulings on religious matters. However, it was al-Bāqir's son, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 765) who began to systematize Shīʿī law and it is perhaps by his time that an appreciable body of rawis (transmitters) of the teachings of the Shīʿī imams emerged. Still, one could hardly speak of the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ as a genuine clerical estate at this time, exhibiting the common social customs, behavior, discourse, and occupational traits necessary for such a sodality.

Apparently, the formulation of Shīʿī law as an elaborated intellectual corpus occurred with the second of four special agents who were believed to be in contact with the Hidden Imam, namely, Abū Sahl al-Nawbakhtī (d. 923). Each of these four agents, the last of whom died in 941, was regarded to be deeply knowledgeable in regard to Shīʿī doctrine, and it is likely that the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ originated with them. With the death of the fourth agent, the Hidden Imam was declared to have transitioned from the lesser occultation, during which he was in touch with the believers through the specific agents, and to have entered the greater occultation. Accordingly, his wilāyah (authority) was seen to have descended on the generality of the religious scholars, who thus came to be known collectively as the “general agents” of the Imam.

The town of Qom (Qumm) became the center of Iranian Shiism in the half-century after the ʿAbbāsid victory of 749. Its status was secured by the fact that so many transmitters of the imams’ sayings, as cited by the authoritative codices of Muḥammad ibn Yaʿqūb al-Kulayni (d. 941) and Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Bābawayh (d. 991), were men from that town. Later compilers of Shīʿī ḥadīth, scholars of the school of Baghdad—such as Shaykh al-Mufīd (d. 1022), his student, Sharif al-Murtadā ʿAlam al-Hudā (d. 1044), and Shaykh al-ṭāʿifah ṭūsī (d. 1067) were to break with the Qom traditionists by embracing forms of rationalism espoused by the Muʿtazilah.

The Baghdad school of Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ (for by then a body of scholars with identifiable professional characteristics had emerged by the eleventh century) condemned the traditionism of Qom and, in the case of the Sharif al-Murtadā, went as far as to hold that only reason could discover the principles of faith. Increasingly, the traditionists were seen as defending anthropomorphic interpretations of Allah and predestinarianism, whereas the Baghdad scholars championed free will. The Baghdad school held that Allah did not have knowledge of the actions of human beings before they acted; they maintained that Allah does not know a thing before He wills or creates it; and they stressed that Allah's knowledge of the universe, as well as the universe itself, are mutable.

Acting as a bridge between the Baghdad school and modern doctrine are the works of the medieval scholars, NaṢīr al-Dīn ṭūsī (1201–1274); his student, ʿAllamāh ibn al-Muṭahhar al-Hilli (1250–1325), author of many works on Shīʿī dogma and practice See ḥILLī, ALLAMāH IBN AL-MUṭAHHAR AL- and Nadīm al-Dīn al-Muḥaqqiq ḥillī (1240–1326), whose work, Sharāʿiʿ al-Islām, is perhaps to this day the authoritative work on Shīʿī law. Over these periods since the Baghdad school's ascendancy and into the modern period, one can say that the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ have continued to adhere firmly to Muʿtazilī notions on the role of human reason in matters of belief.

Under the rule of the Ṣafavids (1501–1722), the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ saw a dramatic rise in their fortunes. The Ṣafavid shahs were state centralizers and determined to establish Shiism in Iran in place of the prevailing Sunnī beliefs in the territory, even though they did not interest themselves much in the mainstream doctrines, attracted more to radical and extremist views, mainly out of political expediency. See ṢAFAVID DYNASTY. The stature of Qom had declined due to repeated attacks by the Baghdad school. The Orientalist, E. G. Browne, and other scholars taking his lead since, maintained that the shahs imported high ranking Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ from Sunnī Arab areas due to a shortage of them in Iran. But, as Newman (1993) has shown, for various reasons those individuals rejected the offer, at least during the first century of the dynasty.

Some of these mujtahids accepted important posts in the state administration, although others maintained an aloofness from political matters. The important ʿulamāʿ in this period are too numerous to mention individually, although ʿAlī b. ḥusayn al-Karakī (d. 1534), who migrated from Lebanon, must be mentioned in any discussion, especially for his enthusiastic endorsement of extremist Shīʿī ideas embraced by the early shahs. Another scholar one needs to mention is Muḥammad Bāqir al-Majlisī (d. 1699), who stands out for his attack on certain mystical and theosophic tendencies in Shiism that he considered elitist. He was, however, careful to uphold the veneration of the imams, which in many respects is the basis for those mystical tendencies. See MAJLISī, MUḥAMMAD BāQIR AL-.

Around the time of Majlisī's death, a major doctrinal struggle occurred among the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ, reminiscent of the conflict between the Qom and Baghdad schools centuries earlier, over the relative importance of the traditions and of human reason. Known as the Akhbārī-UṢūlī dispute, it was resolved in the defeat of the traditionists and the upholding of the principle of ijtihād (independent judgment to determine a legal rule). This important doctrinal victory on behalf of that principle eventually served those who advocated clerical engagement in social issues. Arguing that the clergy as a body constituted the general agency (al-waikālah al-ʿāmmah) of the Hidden Imam, the jurists implied that they had been bequeathed with a measure of the imam's wilāyah (authority). See AKHBāRīYAH, USūLīYAH, WAKāLAH AL-ʿĀMMAH, AL-.

These doctrinal developments are important in the light of the orientation associated with Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq generations earlier. According to the doctrine of the imamate, central to Shiism, the imams alone are the legitimate rulers. However, Jaʿfar had directed his followers to desist from any revolutionary activity aimed at restoring legitimate rule to their imams, insisting that at some point an imam would “rise up” (al-qaʿim) and reestablish rightful rule. Indeed, so committed was Jaʿfar to this position that he ordered his followers to engage in taqīyah (pious dissimulation) to protect the members of the Shīʿī community from being exterminated by the Sunnī rulers. Accordingly, the UṢūlī victory should be seen as a step away from Jaʿfar's quietism, but not yet toward the revolutionary clericalism of Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini (1902–1989) two centuries later.

As European imperialism encroached on Iran in the nineteenth century, the ʿulamāʿ began to operate in society both as an autonomous social force and as a politically assertive one. Whereas the Ṣafavid rulers had basically co-opted the ʿulamāʿ or otherwise ignored those among them who remained aloof from the state in a system that has been characterized as “Caesaro-papist,” the Qājār shahs (1785/97–1925) found themselves subject to the clergy's criticism over foreign concessions, tax policies, loans, territorial looses, and, at times, autocratic conduct. See QāJāR DYNASTY.

Perhaps the most important nineteenth-century clergymen were Shaykh Murtadā Ansārī (d. 1864) and Mīrzā Hasan Shīrāzī (d. 1896). Ansārī's strong vindication of Usūlī doctrine found its manifestation in the principle that the clergy as a group were vested with a relative degree of the imam's authority (al-wilāyah al-iʿtibārīyah]. This privileged them to be custodians of the infirm, the needy, widows, minors, and orphans; and to supervise expenditures on religious matters, including the upkeep of the sayyids (Muslims claiming descent from the Prophet), mosques, shrines and awqāf (sing. waqf, religious endowments). Beyond this, a new institution known as marjiʿyah al-taqlīd (Pers. marjaʿ al-taqlīd)—source of emultation—had come into existence. Shīʿah were called on to identify a distinguished clergyman, called marjiʿ or marjaʿal-taqlīd] and follow that individual's teachings in matters of ritual and law. Such a development institutionalized a special relationship between the highest-ranking clergymen and their followers and was to provide the basis for social mobilization and novel collective action. The establishment of the principle of marjiʿyah al-taqlīd followed closely on the victory of the advocates of ijtihād in the nineteenth century. Because the boundary line between ritual and sociopolitical matters was not always clear, these twin developments manifestly enhanced the influence of the top-ranking ʿulamāʿ.

A classic example of this is provided by the fatwā (religious opinion) issued either by (or, as some scholars maintain, on behalf of) Mīrzā Hasan al-Shīrāzī against the shah's grant of the tobacco monopoly to a British subject in the early 1890s. Although argued on narrow grounds that tobacco is a personal product whose handling by unbelievers makes it ritually unclean, the fatwā also had enormous political significance, because it mobilized thousands in protest, led to the cancellation of the concession, and resulted a crisis between the British and Iranian governments.

For all their increasing activism, the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ did not then possess an institutional church as that concept is understood in the West. No curia existed, no ecclesiastical body, no college of cardinals, no pope, no sure mechanism to select the leadership, no machinery of decision-making, rule, or enforcement. Yet, the Shīʿī religious scholars had over the course of time professionalized and institutionalized their beliefs and practices in ways captured by Weber's concept of rationalization. The latter suggests the intellectual clarification, specification, and systematization of ideas, together with mastery of the formal and informal symbols of Shiism on the basis of which to pronounce the acceptability or nonacceptability of certain modes of conduct by believers.

Adding to their power was the fact that the several marjiʿ al-taqlīd were financially independent of the government. Although the amount of funds they received from their supporters in the population varied from year to year and from one individual cleric to another, this autonomy permitted them to stake out independent positions and insulated them from government control. One could conclude, thus, that by the late nineteenth century the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ were not simply a credible social group but had become a major political force in society.

In the modern period, the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ have not, of course, had identical or even necessarily similar views on such matters as government, administration, public policies, social stratification, or a whole range of issues in the realm of worldly affairs (umur al-dunyā). Even in some of the spirited undertakings by the clergy in modern Iranian history—such as the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1909, the oil crisis of 1951–1953, the civil disturbances of 1960–1963, and the Iranian Revolution of 1978–1979—clergymen spoke with a variety of voices and behaved in highly variegated ways. In short, the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ are not a monolithic stratum, and its members embody a variety of ideal and material interests.

The doctrinal innovations of Ayatollah Khomeini altered the basic understandings of the role of the clergy in public life. Building on the achievements of Ansari regarding the wilāyah of the imams and clergy prerogatives, Khomeini argued in his book, Hukumāt-ī Islamī (Islamic Government, 1970) that the clergy was not only entitled to rule society but must do so. This radical interpretation meant that clergymen should not content themselves with giving advice to rulers, a position with which he had publicly identified in his book Kashf al-Asrār (Revealing the Secrets, 1941). His new line was that jurists had the duty not only to give their advice but actually to rule. Because such rule was merely a matter of implementing sharīʿah (Islamic law), this line of thinking did not appear to him to break with classical teachings. But a number of his colleagues rejected his reinterpretation of the doctrine of the imamate, seeing in it unacceptable encroachments on the substantive authority [al-wilāyah al-takwinīyah] of the imams.

It might be that Khomeini's achievement in reinterpreting the doctrine, as well as leading the revolutionary foces in the Iranian Revolution of 1978–1979, has led to the creation of something resembling a Shīʿī “church.” For the centralization that has occurred in the religious institution in Iran is unprecedented, and actions have been undertaken that resemble patterns in the ecclesiastical church tradition familiar in the West. For example, in 1982, Khomeini encourage the “defrocking” and “excommunication” of his chief rival, Ayatollah Muhammad Kazīm Sharīʿatmadārī (d. 1986), although no machinery for this has ever existed in Islam. Other trends, such as centralized control over budgets, appointments in the professoriate, curricula in the seminaries, the creation of religious militias, monopolizing the representation of interests, and mounting a Kulturkampf in the realm of the arts, the family, and other social, issues tell of the growing tendency to create an “Islamic episcopacy” in Iran.

The Iranian Constitution of 1979 specifically mentions Khomeini several times as the faqīh (top jurist) endowed with the imam's wilāyah—thereby extending to him extraordinary powers. Moreover, Khomeini's practice of issuing fatwās, obedience to which was made compulsory, comes close to relegating to the top jurist powers not dissimilar to those of the pope of the Catholic church. After all, compliance with a particular cleric's fatwās in the past had not been mandatory. In late 1987 and early 1988 Khomeini issued a ruling in which he declared that every one had to obey the commands of the state because it was now an Islamic institution. Even if the state ordered a halt to prayer or suspended the pilgrimage to Mecca, two pillars of Islam, its commands required unhesitating obedience, he ruled. This fatwā modified the “mandate of the jurist” doctrine to which he had given birth, so that it was thenceforth known as the “absolute mandate of the jurist” (wilāyat al-faqīh al-mutlāqah). Moreover, the force of his February 1989fatwā legitimating the killing of author Salman Rushdie for “slandering” the Prophet and Islam was carried over posthumously, again breaking with the classical pattern that the authoritativeness of a cleric's fatwā lapses with his demise.

After Khomeini's death in June 1989, the Iranian regime retreated slightly from these trends by characterizing the rule of his successor as faqīh with the Persian word, rahbar (a generic word for leader). This meant that the faqih did not have to be a marjiʿ al-taqlīd. Khomeini's successor, Sayyid ʿAlī Khameneʿī, who was not even a mujtahid at the time of his appointment, could not pretend to have any thing close to Khomeini's stature, despite the media's short-lived and desultory campaign to endow him with this.

Among Lebanese Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ, support for Khomeini's interpretation of the doctrine of wilāyat al-faqīh has been thin. Important religious leaders, such as Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, widely recognized as the leader of the Lebanese Shīʿah today, and the late Muhammad Javad Mughniyah (d. 1979) have rejected it. It is not clear whether Musa Sadr (vanished, 1978) endorsed it. Hasan Nasrallah, the current leader of Hizbullah, which originated as a religious militia but has evolved into a political party that has contested and won seats in the parliament, is said to support it, however.

According to some scholars, wilāyat al-faqīh was elaborated by Khomeini only after he interacted with the Iraqi mujtahid, Muhammad Bāqir al-Sadr (d. 1980), who wrote about the Islamic state years before Khomeini directed his attention to this subject. Sadr became a leader, if not the original founder, of the Iraqi Daʿwah Party, established in 1957, long before the Iranian revolution or even the Baʿth Party's seizure of power in Iraq. After three or four years of political activism, during which he wrote about and worked for the establishment of an Islamic state, Sadr retreated to a more quietist position. Eventually, though, he returned to a more activist stand in the 1970s and was eventually executed in 1980 by the regime of Saddam Husayn for his oppositional activities. Although he and Khomeini had been close, and Khomeini deeply mourned Sadr's demise, Sadr had not agreed with wilāyat al-faqīh, preferring rule by an elected assembly.

The Sadr and Hākīm families in Iraq, featuring intermarriage with the families of Iranian ʿulamāʿ, have been politically active, whereas other Iraqi based senior mujtahids, such as Abū al-Qāsim Khoʿi (d. 1992) and ʿAlī Sistānī, have been quietist. Not long after the Iranian revolution, Iraqi Shīʿī clerics emigrated to Iran and established in exile there the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The leaders were Muhammad Bāqir al-Hākīm, from 1982–2003, and thereafter, his brother, ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Hākīm. Both are sons of the famous Iraqi marjiʿ al-taqlīd, Muhsin al-Hākīm (d. 1970). After the overthrow of Saddam Husayn's government in April 2003, the SCIRI leadership returned to Iraq and is currently heavily involved in the government and parliament there. Although the SCIRI leaders have always been committed to the doctrine of wilāyat al-faqīh, including presumably its absolutist version, because SCIRI is an umbrella group of several Shīʿī organizations, including the Daʿwah Party—some of the branches of which oppose the mandate of the jurist doctrine—one cannot say SCIRI as a whole endorses it. The senior mujtahid, ʿAlī Sistānī, also opposes the doctrine. Accordingly, the most respected Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ of Iraq since the 1980s, Muhammad Bāqir al-Sadr, Abū al-Qāsim Khoʿi, and ʿAlī Sistānī, have all rejected the Khomeinist juristic theory of rule.

The Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ have in a sense come full circle. In earlier times, they faced persecution and resorted to taqīyah as a consequence of their perilous situation. Marginalized for centuries, their condition changed in the Safavid period, during which they became a significant social force. These trends became stronger in the Qājār period, a time when their power rivaled that of the shahs and their governments. Although their fortunes declined in the Pahlavi period, since 1979, they have managed to institutionalize their political power in an unprecedented manner. Ironically, however, it may be that their very rise to the pinnacle of political power in Iran, with the possibility of achieving this also in Iraq, has compromised their status honor in Weber's sense in the eyes of some of their supporters.

The centralization of the marjaʿiyat al-taqlīd has, in the mind of many of the mujtahids, themselves, corrupted the system by which individuals rise to the peak of their professions, independently of the state. The Safavid rulers tried to co-opt top-ranking clergymen into their Caesaro-papist state, and many accepted, although many others resisted this. The rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran have also followed this path of co-optation into the state apparatus. And although they have done so in the name of Shiism, rather than raison d’etat, they have also witnessed resistance by top-ranking mujtahids, who resent the politicization of the institution of religious leadership. How these disputes play out is not known at this juncture, of course. However, it is clear that the founders of the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot necessarily count on the support of all the ʿulamāʿ, even though the state that they have established is one that purports to advance the cause of the religious institution.


  • Akhavi, Shahrough. “Contending Discourses in Shīʿī Law on the Doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih,”Iranian Studies, 29:3–4 (1996): 228–268. Examination of the debates over the doctrine of the mandate of the jurist among the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ.
  • Akhavi, Shahrough. Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State Relations in the Pahlavi Period. Albany, 1980. Analysis of the role of the clergy in the twentieth century and the state's efforts to limit that role.
  • Algar, Hamid. Religion and State in Iran 1785–1906. Berkeley, 1969. Detailed study of historical and doctrinal trends in Shiism in the Qājār era, with emphasis on the clergy as defenders against the despotism of the rulers.
  • Arjomand, Said Amir. The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam. Chicago, 1984. Authoritative study of Ithnā ʿAshārī Shiism in the context of the Weberian sociology of religion. Begins with the classical period and continues up to the 1890s.
  • Arjomand, Said Amir. The Turban for the Crown. New York, 1988. Analysis of the ʿulamāʿ's role both before and following the Iranian Revolution of 1978–1979.
  • Bayat, Mangol. Iran's First Revolution. New York, 1991. Stresses the divergent motivations of the clergy in the Constitutional Revolution of Iran and argues for the primary role of lower-ranking clerics whose actions were often inspired by sectarian ideas and socialist notions.
  • Cole, Juan R. I.Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shīʿīte Islam. London, 2002. Contains essays covering a wide range of issues in Shiism, including Shīʿah as a minority, the Akhbār-Usūlī debates on ijtihād, the role of women, jihād and others.
  • Dabashi, Hamid. Theology of Discontent. 2d ed.New Brunswick, N.J., 2005. Chapters on leading Iranian religious activists, most of whom are clergymen.
  • Eliash, Joseph. “Misconceptions Regarding the Juridical Status of the Iranian ʿUlamāʿ,”International Journal of Middle East Studies, 10:1 (February 1979): 9–25. Reviews the doctrinal bases for clerical political activism in Shīʿī Islam and argues that no categorical warrant for it exists.
  • Enayat, Hamid. “Iran: Khumayni's Concept of the ʿGuardianship of the Jurisconsult.’” In Islam in the Political Process, edited by James P. Piscatori, pp. 160–180. Cambridge, 1983. Traces the doctrinal roots of wilāyah, maintaining that the concept of wilāyat al-faqīh dates no earlier than the mid-nineteenth century.
  • Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought. Austin, 1982. General discussion of various problems in Muslim social thought pertaining to rule, authority, representation, justice, and the like, with a tendency to stress Shīʿī themes.
  • Fischer, Michael M. J.Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Cambridge, MA, 1980. Anthropological study of the Iranian clergy in the Pahlavi period, with a focus on clerical education discourse and social behavior in the city of Qom (Qumm).
  • Floor, Willem. “The Revolutionary Character of the Iranian ʿulamāʿ: Wishful Thinking or Reality?”International Journal of Middle East Studies, 12:4 (December 1980): 501–524. Examination of the Shīʿī clergy's role in the Iranian protests of 1960–1963, concluding that Shīʿī Islam does not provide the clergy with inherently revolutionary motivations.
  • Gilbert, Joan E.“Institutionalization of Muslim Scholarship and Professionalization of the ʿulamāʿ in Medieval Damascus,”Studia Islamica, 52 (1980): 105–134. Discussion of the evolution of the Sunnī clergy in that city toward the achievement of group coherence, both organizationally and in terms of discourse.
  • Gilliot, Claude. “ʿulamāʿEncyclopedia of Islam. Vol. X, pp. 801–805. Leiden: 2000. Examines the rise and evolution of the religious scholars of Islam, including their functions, training, and the like.
  • Keddie, Nikki R.“The Roots of the ʿulamāʿ's Power in Modern Iran,”Studia Islamica, 29 (1969): 31–53. Traces the doctrinal and historical factors behind the assertiveness of the Shīʿī clergy in the modern period.
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Translated and edited by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, 1981. Important English-language source for Khomeini's writings, including his book Islamic Government (1970).
  • Lambton, Ann K. S.“Quis Custodiet Custodes?: Some Reflections on the Persian Theory of Government.”Studia Islamica, 5 (1956): 125–148; and 6 (1956): 125–146. Classic exploration and critique of Shīʿī juristic theory of authority, stressing its blending of ancient Iranian notions of kingship and Islamic concepts of leadership. Emphasizes the illegitimacy of rule not exercised by the imam.
  • Madelung, Wilferd. Religious Trends in Early Islamic Iran. Albany, 1988. Contains two essays on extremist opposition groups and another on Zaydi and Imami Shiism; other chapters examine early Sunnī trends.
  • Mallat, Chibli. Shīʿī Thought from the South of Lebanon. Oxford, 1988. An occasional paper of the Centre for Lebanese Studies, containing valuable comparisons of the ideas of the Shīʿī clergy in Lebanon with one another and with those of their colleagues in Iran.
  • Mallat, Chibli. The Renewal of Islamic Law: Muhammad Baqer as Sadr, Najaf and the Shīʿī International. Cambridge, 1993. Intellectual biography of Sadr, whose ideas on education, law, and economics have had important resonances in the Shīʿī world.
  • Moaddel, Mansoor. Class, Politics and Ideology in the Iranian Revolution. New York, 1993. Examines the Iranian Revolution of 1978–1979 through the prism of contemporary collective protest literature and stresses the importance of ideology as its constitutive feature.
  • Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shīʿī Islam. New Haven, 1985. Comprehensive survey of developments in Shiism, stressing doctrinal as well as historical trends.
  • Mottahedeh, Roy. Loyalty and Leadership in Early Islamic Society. Princeton, 1980. A study of Buyid Iran and Iraq (945–1055), with some attention to the religious scholars, which maintains that they were not an organized group nor did they represent the local population in any formal sense. but rather were individuals with high prestige who might on occasion speak for specific groups.
  • Mottahedeh, Roy. The Mantle of the Prophet. New York, 1985. Discussion of the Iranian Revolution of 1978–1979 as captured by an illuminating exploration of the world of the Shīʿī seminary, blending fiction, historical analysis, and philosophical inquiry to follow the lives of one religious and one secular student.
  • Newman, Andrew. “The Myth of the Clerical Migration to Safawid Iran,”Die Welt des Islams, 33 (1993): 66–112. Important corrective to the thesis that the early safavids introduced to Iran Shīʿī religious scholars resident in Sunnī territories of Islam as a result of an inadequate supply of them within the country.
  • Walbridge, Linda S, ed.The Most Learned of the Shiʿa: The Institution of the Marja Taqlid. New York, 2001. Illuminating discussion on many facets of the institution of marjīʿiyat al-taqlīd, including analysis of doctrinal and ritualistic contributions by particular ʿulamāʿ.
  • Watt, William Montgomery. “The Significance of the Early Stages of Imami Shiism.” In Religion and Politics in Iran, edited by Nikki Keddie, pp. 21–32. New Haven, 1983. Argues that the Shīʿī doctrine of the Imamate took shape in the fifty years or so following the occultation of the twelfth imam in 873/874.

Shahrough Akhavi

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